Camps: A Welcome Respite

Camp Colley in Phoenix, Ariz.

By Dawn Klingensmith

"I really want to go to Camp Colley because I never went camping before and people tell me that it is fun. It will be an opportunity to get out of my home and smell the fresh air and look at all the animals like chickmimes, rain deer and owls."

The fact that this young letter writer expected there would be reindeer in Arizona, where Camp Colley is located, is cute and comical, but also underscores the need for programs that introduce city kids to nature.

That, and the child's obvious longing to experience the great outdoors.

At an elevation of 6,700 feet and about 150 miles from Phoenix, which owns the facility, Camp Colley provides a welcome escape from the city's searing heat. The camp is nestled in a Ponderosa pine forest on the Mogollon Rim, an escarpment that traverses the state. At the camp, the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department provides outdoor activities that city kids might otherwise never have the opportunity to experience, such as canoeing, bird watching, fishing, horseback riding, campfire cooking and rock climbing. All programs, meals, equipment, transportation and supervision are provided for free.

Although not necessarily set up for any particular demographic besides nature-deprived kids who are already engaged in parks and rec programs, the camp is billed by its foundation as "one of Arizona's most effective interventions for at-risk, inner-city youth and people with life challenges."

Though admirable, the camp's mission is not what makes it unique. Any number of programs and facilities exist for the primary purpose of introducing city kids to nature and outdoor recreation. Some emphasize the need for kids to escape the smog and simply breathe fresh air. Others try to put kids on the right path who have gotten caught up in the vices and violence of inner cities. All share the belief that outdoor programming builds character and instills an appreciation of nature.

What makes Camp Colley stand apart, among other things, is that the 30-acre site, surrounded by national forest, is totally off the grid yet fully ADA-compliant. It also has a long and storied history that shows its founder, for whom the camp is named, was ahead of his time. "Jim was a visionary," said park manager Jeff Spellman. "He knew there was a need to reconnect kids and nature long before Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods," the 1995 book that introduced the concept of nature-deficit disorder.

Camp Colley's utilities are provided by the use of solar energy, propane, well water and a constructed wetlands system as opposed to a septic system for wastewater disposal.

As rustic and secluded as the camp is, every facility there is fully accessible, and the camp hosts a four-season outdoor adventure program specifically designed to meet the needs of teens and adults with disabilities. Activities include hiking, backpacking, primitive camping and cross-country skiing.

Camp Colley welcomed its first guests about 10 years ago, but its genesis dates back at least a quarter century, when the late James Colley, Phoenix parks director from 1979 to 2003, envisioned a place where children could experience nature, perhaps for the first time. "Jim knew a lot of kids never had the opportunity to sit around a campfire roasting marshmallows, never smelled a pine tree, never looked up and saw a dark, dark sky where you can literally see every star," Spellman said.

Indeed, recent surveys of kids involved in parks and rec programs indicate that 80 percent of them have never even left the city limits.

But in his quest for funding and a suitable facility, Colley might just as well have been reaching for a star. He and his supporters "worked for so long that no one thought it would ever become a reality," Spellman said.

People began referring to the project as Camp Long Shot.

Several sites were deemed unsuitable for one reason or another—lack of safe drinking water, opposition from neighboring communities.

When Colley beheld the 30 acres where his career-long dream would finally become reality, he reportedly said, "This is the place. Buy it."

There were no funds available to do his bidding, though. So Colley, never one to give up, personally appealed to the city council and was able to secure enough funding.

Camp Colley started out with just four platform tents. Kids who regularly participated in parks and rec programs were hand-selected to attend Camp Colley, and today's invitees are still drawn from a pool of frequent users.

Environmental education is an important aspect of Camp Colley's programming. Forest rangers and firefighters lead educational tours and campfire talks about nature and outdoor safety. Also included in the programming is a community service project, such as removing invasive species and restoring areas damaged by ATVs.

These days, children in Arizona have no shortage of camps to choose from, Spellman conceded. And many, like Camp Colley, have an environmental education component, along with outdoor recreation. But such camps are prohibitively expensive for many families. "Jim felt we should have a place to take kids where they could have these experiences and not pay a dime," Spellman said.

Camp Colley occasionally opens up to the general public for "family camping weekends," each centered on an activity such as horseback riding, kayaking, hiking and enjoying the fall foliage, and exploring the nearby fire towers under a ranger's supervision.

"Year after year, they fill up instantly, which shows us that families are looking for opportunities to go out in nature," Spellman said, adding that participants are charged just enough to cover "hard costs."

Spellman does not necessarily like to see repeat customers, as the goal is to teach families how to brave the great outdoors on their own.

It worked for Holly Hunter, who bought her own equipment and became an avid camper after taking her two youngest children to Camp Colley several years ago. She says the experience helped her overcome the "intimidation factor" she felt as a novice camper and showed her kids there's more to life than video games. In fact, her kids had so much fun that they cried when it was time to go home.

"They absolutely love the outdoors now," Hunter said, "and I give complete credit to Camp Colley."

Despite its successes, Camp Colley was nearly closed recently due to budget cuts. Fortunately, the Camp Colley Foundation came through with funding so the camp will continue to operate. The mayor of Phoenix presented the foundation with a "More with Less" award for its ability to achieve positive outcomes using fewer resources.

For the past two years, the foundation has been the largest contributor of operating funds to keep Camp Colley open. The foundation committed $160,000 in funds to the city, which has ongoing budget woes, for fiscal year 2009-10, and $120,000 for fiscal year 2010-11.

So though they may never see "rain deer" or "chipmimes," pint-size city slickers will still have a chance to skip stones, stoke a campfire and wish on a shooting star.


Camp Colley:

Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department:

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